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SCOTT SIMON, host:

If Annie Dillard had written one of the "Harry Potter" books, it would be just 200 pages long, but run through your heart like a slender foil.

Annie Dillard has written the other big book of the summer. It's short - 216 pages. And as she's noted in interviews, it's got lots of void space around the margins.

"The Maytrees" is about a couple who meet up in post-war Provincetown, Massachusetts: Toby Maytree, a poet and handyman, and Lou Bigelow, a painter and beauty. They marry, delight to have a child they adore and then disappoint each other. Maytree moves away to Maine for 20 years and then returns to Lou's life, asking for a favor that for many would be just too much to ask.

Annie Dillard, the acclaimed author of "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek" and many other award-winning narratives, joins us now from Cape Cod. Thanks so much for being with us.

Ms. ANNIE DILLARD (Author, "The Maytrees: A Novel"): I'm happy to be here. Actually, this little teeny-tiny book worked its way up to 1,200 pages.

SIMON: That was my first question. I have read that it was once 1,200 pages.

Ms. DILLARD: Yeah.

SIMON: What happened?

Ms. DILLARD: I got smart. And so I asked myself, what is this book about? It is about the love between these two people. Take out everything that isn't about that and so I did. I didn't take out quite everything because there's a little bit in there about Cape Cod.

One time, I wrote another novel called "The Living," about the history of the Pacific Northwest, and they said they were going to make it into books on tape. But unfortunately, it would take so many tapes that they were going to cut the eight tapes to two. And I said, oh, you can't do that, that's not right at all. And they said, well, four. So they sent me the manuscript and - of what they were going to tape - and it was so much a better book than the book I'd written.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DILLARD: I really learned a lot from that…

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Oh my word.

Ms. DILLARD: It was a little short on atmosphere, of course, but geez, it told a story.

SIMON: Let me follow up on a couple of things. Now, whether or not the story about Hemingway is true, of course, the lore has been that he learned from Cabiles(ph), I think, when he was writing dispatches for the Toronto Star and Chicago Daily News in World War I, some clues for what became his pared down, spare prose style.

Ms. DILLARD: Everything we know about writing we know from Hemingway.

SIMON: Well, I find it fascinating that you learned something from books on tape.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DILLARD: No. I aged. Your taste - changes as you age. And when I was young I liked it flashy. I liked it admirable. I wanted people to gasp all the time. And now, I'm old. There are no modifiers. It's clean as a whistle. And every time, almost every time - this isn't true throughout - I used a three-syllable word. I asked myself, is there a two-syllable word. If I used a two-syllable word, I asked myself, is there a one-syllable word. Of course, all the verbs are active. The idea was to eliminate every single unnecessary word.

SIMON: Can we hear some of your book that people (unintelligible)?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DILLARD: This is a beginning of a long and, actually, quite exciting love story that's not at all sentimental, not at all.

(Reading) It began when Lou Bigelow and Toby Maytree first met. He was back home in Provincetown, Massachusetts, after the war. Maytree first saw her on a bicycle. A red scarf, white shirt, skin clean as eggshell, wide eyes and mouth, shorts. She stopped and leaned on a leg to talk to someone on the street. She laughed, and her loveliness caught his breath. He thought he recognized her flexible figure. Because everyone shows up in Provincetown sooner or later, he had taken her at first for Ingrid Bergman until his friend straightened him out.

He introduced himself. You're Lou Bigelow, aren't you? She nodded. They shook hands and hers felt hot under sand like a sugar doughnut. Under her high brows, she eyed him straight on and straight across. She had gone to girls' schools, he recalled later. Those girls looked straight at you. Her wide eyes, apertures opening, seemed preposterously to tell him, I and these my arms are for you. I know, he thought back at the stranger, this long-limbed girl, I know and I'm right with you.

He felt himself blush and he knew his freckles looked green. She was young and broad of mouth and eye and jaw, fresh, solid and airy, as if light worked her instead of muscles.

SIMON: Boy. Speaking of Maytree and Lou…

Ms. DILLARD: Lou.

SIMON: We know what brought them into each other's orbit. What that's elemental attraction that you're describing there? What did they call out in each other, do you think?

Ms. DILLARD: Good God, man. You're asking me what love is? I devoted the entire book to the question of what love is.

SIMON: Yeah. That's right.

Ms. DILLARD: And brought to bear thousands of disagreeing quotations from people who've given it a lot of thought. I liked the guy who said it was a mammalianish(ph) shudder. That was one of the Greeks. And it was solely for procreation. He later died after drinking a love potion that made him commit suicide because he loved the woman so much. Nobody knows what love is. Nobody knows why you can love more than once.

SIMON: And yet that doesn't mean you fall out of love with the first - with the previous love, does it?

Ms. DILLARD: Not in my books. Certainly, not in "Maytrees" book.

SIMON: May I ask one these (unintelligible) questions about your writing habits?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DILLARD: Sure. I write with my nose.

SIMON: Oh, really? Okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: I don't think I ran into that before. And…

Ms. DILLARD: I wrote the thing on the computer. It was awful. If I ever write another book, it will be in cuneiform on clay tablet.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DILLARD: You've got to slow down. You've got to think.

SIMON: What does it do? Encourages digression?

Ms. DILLARD: Digression, prolixity. It weakens the intensity of the story. A story should be simplified and enlarged. Instead, the computer dilutes it, spreads it all over the place. It muffles any impact it might have had as the poor reader tries to make his way through billions of unnecessary paragraphs about billions of unnecessary things.

SIMON: So do you write every day?

Ms. DILLARD: I do when I'm working.

SIMON: Okay. But you'll take some time off?

Ms. DILLARD: I'm tempted now to take the rest of life off.

SIMON: You don't have another book working at the moment or don't want to?

Ms. DILLARD: This one just about killed me. It was 10 years.

SIMON: Yeah.

Ms. DILLARD: And you write and you write and you write and then you throw it away and you throw it away and you throw it away. And in those 10 years, I probably could have done something more useful, although I've always wanted nothing more than to add to literature.

SIMON: Mm-hmm. I just wondered - not to turn myself into a career counselor -but if…

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: If…

Ms. DILLARD: I'm not being totally truthful with you.

SIMON: Oh, okay.

Ms. DILLARD: I can't write anymore. My fingers can no longer type. They can no longer write by hand. I don't know how I'd be with a chisel. But the fact is, you know, that was the great story. "The Maytrees" was the great story.

SIMON: Yeah.

Ms. DILLARD: And I'll never get another story that good. People want people to keep doing what they want. People want to change and grow.

SIMON: Yeah. And you want to do something different?

Ms. DILLARD: I want to change and grow.

SIMON: Annie Dillard, it's been so nice to talk to you.

Ms. DILLARD: Well, thank you very much.

SIMON: Annie Dillard. Her new novel, "The Maytrees."

And you can read an excerpt from what she calls her great story at our Web site, npr.org/books.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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